Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hear! Hear! A hero

Well, it's about time. Major shout-out to Michael Fumento for his insightful comment on conservative cannibalism:

This is a time to band together against the witch hunters, not to succor those who aid them. The ultimate purpose of the hunt is not to remove individuals but to weaken the entire conservative and free-market movement. As my case shows, innocence is no defense. We either present a united front or we watch as, one by one, we're each led to the stake.

Exactly so. I have long admired Catherine Seipp -- whose vignettes of the Hollywood Left are priceless -- but it appears to me that Fumento has a point in his contention that she was too quick to pull the "ethics" trigger against him, and that he was tried, condemned and burned at the stake for violating a standard which almost any D.C. think-tank operative could be said to have violated. Speaking of the Business Week article that "outed" him as supposedly pimping for Monsanto, Fumento points out:

Nowhere does it say I took money for any column or story. It says I solicited a grant from Monsanto for a biotechnology book I was working on. (It doesn't say, but should, that such solicitations from philanthropies and corporations are the general rule for writers of policy books.) It says my think-tank employer accepted the grant and paid me a salary while I worked on the book.
Using a bizarre set of rules that writer Eamon Javers made up on the spot, applied specifically to my circumstances, and then made retroactive, Javers decided — bizarre though it sound — that a book grant received in 1999 should be disclosed in columns written in 2006 — and presumably forever

It would be easy for me to condemn the entire Beltway think-tank universe as corrupt, since no think tank would ever be foolish enough to hire me. But the fact is, it takes money to run a think tank, and not all of the endowment of the big policy shops -- Heritage, AEI, Cato, Hudson, etc. -- comes from deep-pocket ideological zealots. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, sir.) High among the Beltway Beatitudes is, "Blessed be the wonk who knows what 'development' means." I'm sure when Fumento scored the Monsanto grant, the guys at Hudson were exchanging high-fives. (OK, that was what us writer-types call a "metaphor." If anybody's ever met a think-tank wonk, it's hard to picture one of them doing an enthusiastic high-five.)

Soliciting grants to support research is the name of the game for think-tankers, in other words, and the general attitude is, "the more the merrier." Besides which, it wasn't as if Fumento was fronting for Mainway Toys (makers of the very popular "Bag O' Glass"). Monsanto is a reputable company -- at least as reputable as, say, the New York Times, Inc. -- and who says that a grant from Monsanto automatically taints a book about biotechnology?

The case against Fumento should be silly to any journalist with half a brain and a functioning conscience. I've spent 20 years in the newspaper business. By the standards of the "more-ethical-than-thou" crowd, I was beyond the pale the first time I ate a free chili dog provided to me by the Gordon Central High School Band Boosters Club. I've eaten my share of free chili dogs since then, and to the Mystic Knights of Journalism Ethics, I say ... well, perhaps Monty Python said it best.

Unlike some of the hyperambitious journalists inside the Beltway -- the kind who came straight out of Ivy League universities and never covered a city council meeting or a Fourth of July parade for a small-town weekly -- I didn't get into this racket because I wanted to save the world or win a Pulitzer. No, like my hero, Hunter S. Thompson, I became a sportswriter "because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for."

Hunter was a leftie, of course, but he was also a genius, and while almost every journalist under 50 now claims to have been a lifelong admirer of Thompson, it seems to me that very few of them have ever understood the man. Thompson was a hardened cynic who absolutely hated the true-believer save-the-world types. But he had this crazy idea that journalism is ultimately about the truth. Not necessarily The Truth, but facts anyway. What kind of ethical "compromises" did Thompson make when he partied with the Hell's Angels or sat talking pro football with Dick Nixon? Who cares? He wrote the facts, or at least the truth. (Did anybody ever get to the bottom of Ed Muskie's ibogaine addiction? See Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, [New York: Popular Library. 1973], pp. 150-154; the evidence on p. 153, I believe we can all agree, is more or less conclusive.)

Hunter absolutely despised the ridiculous pretense of so-called "objective" journalism. He called Hubert Humphrey a "gutless old ward-heeler" -- a stone-cold truth that had the additional benefit of being ROTFLMAO funny. Along with Tom Wolfe, Thompson was one of the few working journalists from the '60s who ever wrote anything worth reading, because he was one of the few journallists who ignored all that "neutral objectivity" stuff (and anybody who's ever read Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 knows that Hunter called it something a bit stronger than "stuff").

Though I could never hope to imitate Thompson's genius -- I've tried a time or two, and will let the reader judge how miserably I failed -- I loved his irreverence toward the pieties of the high priests of the Cult of Objectivity. Long before anyone had heard of Jason Blair or dreamed of the "Tailwind" farce or imagined Dan Rather's debacle, Thompson saw through the MSM's charade of "ethics" and "objectivity." In addition to his wacky notion that maybe journalism should have something to do with facts, Thompson borrowed a great idea from Mark Twain: "Hey, why not have some fun -- and share it with the reader?" (If I could get a fat grant from Monsanto, I'd be happy to write 5,000 words arguing that Thompson's most legitimate living heirs are P.J. O'Rourke and Ann Coulter. I don't know if Monsanto is into gonzo journalism, but it never hurts to ask.)

If I seem a little worked up about this, it's not because my publisher just delivered a case of Wild Turkey and an eightball of top-grade crank to help me meet my deadline here at the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco* -- listening to the Allman Brothers and, hey, where's my Mojo Wire? -- but because I care very seriously about facts. Facts do matter. Or should.

For all the times I've been slammed and smeared, there's one thing about my writing at The Washington Times I'm very proud of: I get my facts straight. A Nexis search will show you that I've filed something over 400 bylined news articles for the Times in the past 7+ year. This is pretty good, because (a) I'm paid to edit, not to write; and (b) I am a phenomenally lazy person. But in all of those 400+ news articles, I've only made 6 errors that required corrections, and most of those were simple typos, as when I wrote "Winston Blount" instead of "Winton Blount." I never made up any West Virginia tobacco fields or fictional junkies. I never mistook a Word document for a 1972 National Guard record. I never did a lot of the stupid or dishonest things that the Olympian gods of Objective Neutral Journalism have done, in other words.

And the same is true of Michael Fumento. If there are errors in his books or in his columns, by all means, point them out. If he falsely claimed that toxic sludge is good for you, or that Monsanto has patented vaccines for male-pattern baldness and bad breath, please document the evidence. I'd love to see it. If Fumento had ever written a story with a Rockville, Maryland, dateline filed from a bar in Brooklyn, maybe I'd give a rat's rear end what Sharon Waxman had to say about it. In the meantime, I'll pay no attention to New York Times reporters presuming to know anything about "journalistic ethics."

Michael Fumento wrote one of the bravest books ever written about AIDS. At a time when hysterics Left and Right were trying to convince Americans that AIDS was on the verge of wiping out the entire human population, Fumento seems to have gotten a gonzo idea stuck in his head: Hey, what about the FACTS? Next to the courageous Randy Shilts, it may be that Fumento did more than any other journalist to lead us away from the panic-pit over AIDS that gripped much of the media during the 1980s.

Fumento was predictably slammed as a gay-basher for pointing out that it was unlikely that the average middle-class suburban housewife was in danger of contracting AIDS from a toilet seat (or a waiter, or her hairdresser). But facts are facts. And by debunking both PC propaganda and ignorant fear, Fumento's book was one of the things that put an end to all that crazy talk about quarantining HIV-infected people.

But despite this memorable achievement, some people were too quick to believe that Fumento had sold his soul for a Monsanto grant, just because Eamon Javers said so.

It's time to wake up and smell the Fear and Loathing, people. You cannot forever feed the tiger hoping to be eaten last. You might think that the smearing of Fumento is merely the re-militarizing of the Rhineland, but we're way past that part of the story. No, I'd say what happened to Fumento is more like the Sudetenland in this particular extended metaphor, and it seems to me it's time to reconsider whether imitating Neville Chamberlain is sound strategy.

I bristle every time someone on the right tries to distance themselves from "mean-spirited" Ann Coulter because of her defense of McCarthy, or suggests that maybe Michelle Malkin "went too far" when she dared to seek the facts about internment. The facts are the facts and, in Ann's case, the jokes are the jokes. If you're not grown up enough to cope with unpleasant facts or a bit of sarcastic hyperbole, that's not Michelle's or Ann's problem. And if you are too naive to understand that think-tank researchers live and die by grant money, then maybe you should just stick to safe "objective" sources like the erstwhile employers of Walter Duranty and Herb Matthews.

I'm not here to pick a fight with anybody. As I said, I've long admired and enjoyed Catherine Seipp's writing. She's clever and witty. And heaven knows there are times I've hit the "send" button and lived to regret it. But at some point the conservative movement has got to stop acting like the Donner Party or a rugby team trapped in the Andes.

Or else someday the history of the conservative movement will be ... well, history, like the history of the Whig Party (suggested title: First They Came for Mel Bradford).

Me, I'm standing athwart history and yelling STOP!

Who's with me?


* NOTE: This is what we writer-types sometimes call a "joke." My publisher, NelsonCurrent, doesn't supply whiskey or drugs to its writers, besides which I'm sober as a judge, and I've never even been to San Francisco. This "joke" was intended as a humorous reference to Hunter S. Thompson's notorious (and perhaps exaggerated) substance abuse, specifically the circumstances described on pp. 15-21 of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (New York: Popular Library. 1973).

UPDATE 11/27:
Catherine Seipp continues to defend her contention that Fumento is corrupt.

Michelle Malkin defends Fumento, but says, " still think Mike erred in failing to disclose the grant when his book was published." OK, that's news to me. I would have certainly thought that, in the acknowledgements of such a book, Fumento would have said something like "grants from Monsanto ... [names of other grant-givers] helped support the research for this book." Does the word "Monsanto" not appear anywhere in the acknowledgements?

Well, the whole "full disclosure" trend is rather recent. I remember a few years back when "full disclosure" became a columnist catch-phrase to the point of being a cliche. But again, if Fumento's book is accurate and factual, the book stands on its own merits. There's nothing wrong with getting paid to tell the truth. It's only when you start telling Americans that Microsoft Word fakes (provided to you by an ax-grinding crackpot) are authentic National Guard records from 1973 that you've got a real ethics problem. Perhaps more information will become available.

And, as Mrs. Malkin points out, these standards seem to be applied inconsistently:

If the Fumento Standard is now the standard on newspaper op-ed pages, it will be interesting to watch the NY Times apply it--retroactively and across-the-board. Have its op-ed contributors who are attached to left-wing think tanks taken money directly or indirectly from unions and failed to disclose? How about open-borders pundits who have solicited, received, or been offered money from businesses who oppose immigration enforcement? Maybe the Times will assign a reporter to investigate.